Awakened by King’s passionate dream

Aug. 31, 2013 @ 12:05 PM

In the summer of 1963, I was a teenager about to start my sophomore year in high school, already manifesting my lifelong geekiness by devouring newscasts and newspapers.

But I was, if memory serves, relatively oblivious to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom that August. Oblivious, but for being vaguely aware of the contempt – some benign, some vicious – held for it by most of the adults around me in the town of 7,000 where I grew up.

That summer, as had been true every summer, every season for generations, Mount Airy was two communities, for the most part separate and for an even greater part unequal. It troubled me faintly but, at 15, not, I must confess, a great deal. It simply was the way it was.

There wasn’t a single black student at Mount Airy High School – not until my senior year. Many years later, a colleague and I realized we had both grown up in Mount Airy and were about the same age, but our paths never crossed, not even in that small town. He attended the segregated black high school; I, the segregated white one.

So, no, I wasn’t moved by Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Not then.

But I was not too long after.

By the spring of 1968, enveloped in the broadening influence of Duke University and surrounded by exceedingly bright and intensely passionate classmates, my perspective on the world had changed.

And I heard – heard and remembered, at least – for the first time King’s speech in its entirety. I was ready to be moved, and I was.

And like millions of others, I was grieving. Moreover, I was watching the campus, the community and the nation explode in rage and sorrow. I listened to that speech in the immediate aftermath of King’s assassination.

Had I been more conscious of the events of April 1963, I still would not have foreseen, no one foresaw the tumult of the next decade.  What lay ahead was the dismantling of the South’s cruel and brazen system of apartheid and the beginning of the end of legally sanctioned racial oppression throughout the country.

But what also lay ahead was a presidential assassination; urban explosions of rage and powerlessness that exemplified how we had become two nations, one black and one white; a misguided conflict in Southeast Asia that would fracture the country as nothing had done since the Civil War; a generation gap as baby boomers clashed with an older generation over not just war and civil rights but over sex, drugs and rock and roll.

Perspectives differ, of course, but from mine, the country emerged from that torment a better place. A better place for black people, to be sure. But a better place for women, a better place for gay men and lesbians.

And a better place for all of us because, while we are still far from the fully inclusive nation we should be, we no longer waste the social capital of large sections of our population marginalized or inhibited from realizing their full potential because of the color of their skin, their gender or their sexual orientation.

I didn’t know it in April 1963, but the movement King brought to a pinnacle with his dream was on the cusp of changing in a seismic way the thinking of a nation.

It certainly was laying the groundwork to change the thinking of this one individual, as much as I had no clue of it at the time.

And I am, 50 years later, profoundly grateful for it.

Bob Ashley is editor of The Herald-Sun. You can reach him at 919-419-6678 or bashley@heraldsun.com.